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Chris Hennes

Working with banana leaves

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Does anyone have any tips or tricks for working with banana leaves? For example, how do you soften them up for making tamales? How do you keep them from tearing while you work with them? That sort of thing.


Chris Hennes
Director of Operations
chennes@egullet.org

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When I used them in Cambodia, we ran them over a gas flame first to soften them up. I've only worked with them the once, so I'm not sure if it's a universal rule, but it did soften them up for cutting and folding.

I can't remember if the leaves started off shiny and turned dull over the flame, or vice versa, but we knew they were ready when they changed.

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Yep, that's what I was taught. Wipe down the leaves, then pass them over a flame or grill, moving them constantly, until they soften and become pliable. The banana leaves have a white film on them. The heat should burn off the white film and make the leaves shinier.

I once made a mini version of the tamal zacahuil under the watchful eye of cooking teacher Agustin Gaytan ( http://www.agustincooks.com/main.html ). When I say mini, I mean the tamal was about 2 feet long and 1 foot wide, and it was too small to fill up a pit and feed an entire village. I laid out the banana leaves on aluminum foil, smoothed on the filling, then wrapped up the tamal, using the aluminum foil to help fold the banana leaves. This tamal was actually cooked on the grill in aluminum foil. But I wonder if a temporary aluminum foil backing might help you fold your tamales.

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I can't remember if the leaves started off shiny and turned dull over the flame, or vice versa, but we knew they were ready when they changed.

They turn shiny. I use them to make cochinita pibil. I trim any thick parts, like the stem, then wash them well in cold water, and then, because I don't have gas, heat them on a comal until they turn soft, shiny and pliable.

It doesn't take long to heat them until they're ready to use, so you have to be careful not to burn them.


Edited by Jaymes (log)

I don't understand why rappers have to hunch over while they stomp around the stage hollering.  It hurts my back to watch them. On the other hand, I've been thinking that perhaps I should start a rap group here at the Old Folks' Home.  Most of us already walk like that.

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I made tamales for dinner tonight and tried something new: I have an electric smoothtop range, so I turned a burner on medium-low with nothing on it. After I put the fillings in the tamale, but before I folded it, I took the whole thing over to the range and quickly heated it up right on the surface of the range, literally a few seconds before folding it over. It worked like a charm once I got the hang of how long to heat them for.


Chris Hennes
Director of Operations
chennes@egullet.org

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I recently took a week long class at the CIA San Antonio on Mexican cuisine that was taught by Illiana de la Vega. We made a lot of tamales, including several varieties with banana leaves. Illiana said that normally the leaves would be softened by running them over a flame dull side down once the stalk had been removed and the leaves cleaned trimmed. But, she also said that some of the fresh banana leaves available in the U.S. can be really tough and don't always respond to flame softening (first time I'd heard this). Since almost everyone in this class was working in a professional kitchen and speed and consistency was important, the recommendation was to boil the banana leaves for a few minutes to soften them up. The leaves for all the banana leaf tamales we made in class were softened by boiling. It's the first time I've seen or used this method. It's easy and it works.

If you're trimming down banana leaves remember to cut them with the grain of the leaf (much like cutting flank steak) rather than against it.

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